Saturday sees the Potters make the trip down to Cardiff to take on a side with whom they have built an unlikely rivalry with over the years. There’s clearly no geographical significance to the tie or any other logical link between the clubs other than a bitter relationship borne from their time shared in the lower leagues.
It was not long after the turn of the millennium and Stoke had again failed to win promotion out of the god-awful third tier of English football under the stewardship of their Icelandic owners while, across the border in Wales, Sam Hammam had rocked up with a pocketful of promises. He promptly sanctioned the purchase of a number of players, two of whom were Stoke’s own Graham Kavanagh and Peter Thorne. Both had been instrumental to the Potters’ fortunes, despite the side not managing to gain promotion, Thorne in particular was a one-man goal machine.
Kavanagh seemingly revelled at the prospect of jumping ship and sadly didn’t show any humility with his parting words, stating Cardiff were more ambitious and would provide him with the best chance to get into the Irish squad. Those words served only to rub salt into the wounds of fans who were struggling to come to terms with the loss of the side’s two best players at a time when the squad should have been strengthened for another promotion push. The loss of Thorne was the one that was harder to swallow for me, though, having been the main man up top in my formative years as a Stokie; he wasn't far shy of scoring a goal every other game during his time in the Potteries, and he remains the last player in red and white to score more than 20 goals in a season (30 in 1999-2000).
Thankfully, Stoke strengthened the side for the remainder of the campaign; most notably with the arrivals of Peter Handyside, Sergei Shtanyuk and Dutch maestro Peter Hoekstra. Each of those players were key as Stoke managed to cope with the exit of Thorne and "Judas" admirably, securing yet another spot in the playoffs. As fate would have it, the side Stoke would face was Cardiff City. The atmosphere is always charged in the playoffs, but given the opposition and the fact that the fans had built up a (not so) healthy rivalry throughout the season, tensions were high.
Stoke lost the first leg, though they managed to score a late consolation goal to take back to Cardiff, but the game was one full of missed opportunities as the clock ticked toward the 90-minute marker. Rob Earnshaw was subbed with only minutes remaining, geeing up the crowd who had already started to celebrate its imminent victory. The stadium announcer then uttered words that he will carry to his grave; asking the fans to stay off the pitch so the Cardiff players could do their lap of honour. Then up popped James O’Connor, whose shot managed to squirm its way into the net to take the tie into extra time.
The travelling Stokies roared as "Ginge" had given them a lifeline, the momentum was with Stoke, and Cardiff looked utterly demoralised. Extra time went almost the full distance when the Potters managed to win a late free kick. Up stepped Ginge, who sent the ball in and, among a mass of bodies, found Souleymane Oulare’s backside perfectly and the ball ended up in the back of the net. Pandemonium.
The rest, as they say, is history; though the gods of fate have conspired to bring the sides together once more with high-flying Stoke offered another chance to sink a nail into the Bluebirds’ coffin. The rivalry has been reinvigorated by this season’s exchange of Kenwyne Jones and Peter Odemwingie, and with latter’s words and the former’s ongoing dispute with the club, I imagine acquaintances will quickly be renewed in the stands, too.
A win against Cardiff will see Stoke within a point of their Premier League record, which would be a great achievement; so if the Cardiff fans could just stay off the pitch at the final whistle...